When I moved to Moscow in 2002, I knew as much or as little about the Caucasus as any other reasonably educated young man. I could have told you that Jason and the Argonauts went there to find the Golden Fleece; that these mountains formed the southern border of Europe; that they had wrongly been identified as the origin of all Europeans.
I would have continued in my happy ignorance of one of Europe's most fascinating regions, but for a strange coincidence. As a young reporter for Reuters news agency, I was seeking stories to write and selected a wave of American-style musicals as a feature idea; "Razzmatazz in the home of ballet" was going to be the angle. I went backstage after a production of 42nd Street to interview the producer, and was surprised when he spoke to me in Russian, because he spoke perfect English.
"I'm sorry," he said, "but I don't want to alarm the cast, who only speak English. A group of Chechens has taken over another theater in Moscow and I would rather they didn't find out."
I grabbed my coat and ran out the door, becoming one of the first journalists to make it to the scene. For the next three days I spent almost every waking hour outside the grim concrete lump of the theater, waiting for a resolution to a hostage crisis that gripped the world. When that resolution came, it was a tragedy. Some 129 hostages died, all but one of them killed by knock-out gas used in the botched rescue attempt.
The horror of it fascinated me. How could the Chechens have hated the Russians so much that they were prepared to declare war on a theater full of ordinary Muscovites? In the next few weeks, I read all I could about the Caucasus mountains, learning that they are one of the most multi-ethnic regions on Earth. Dagestan — the size of Scotland — has more than 40 languages, some of them spoken in just a couple of villages.
I prepared meticulously for my first trip south. I was due to write about the Meskhetian Turks — one of the many nations oppressed by Stalin, but one of the few that were never rehabilitated. They lived with almost no legal rights, facing severe discrimination from local officials. I was resigned to a grim weekend as their guest.
After I arrived in the home of a community leader, we sat down around the table in an awkward silence. I wasn't sure how to broach the questions I wanted to ask, and they weren't sure what to do with this foreigner who had descended upon them.
"You are a Christian," one of them said at the end of a silence, and I admitted I was.
"We are Muslims," another man said, and my heart sank. This was a difficult beginning to my stay.
"You drink vodka," the first man said. It was more of a statement than a question, and again I admitted that I did, but I was more than happy not to drink vodka while under their roof.
"If you want to drink vodka, then we won't stop you," the second man said. "We are a hospitable people and would not stop a guest from doing what he wants."
Again, I said I was happy not to go without a drink, but I was clearly doing something wrong because the crowd was becoming palpably more frustrated with me.
"In the Caucasus, it is considered rude to drink alone," the second man continued, and they all looked at me. Thinking back, I am amazed by my own stupidity, but again I protested that I didn't need to have a drink. Eventually, the first man realized he would have to spell it out.
"So, if you were to want a drink, we would be forced to drink, too."
At last I got it. "Yes, I would like a drink," I said, and out came a bottle and a tray of glasses, and we proceeded to get happily drunk for most of the weekend in one of the most unexpected and joyous parties I have ever attended.
It was my first taste of Caucasus hospitality, which is exuberant, all-encompassing, and supremely generous. After the theater siege, the mountains had fascinated my brain; now my heart was sucked in too.
A few months later, on a grim winter day of mud and low gray clouds, I was in one of the many khaki tents stretched out in rows in a Chechen refugee camp. I was drinking tea with a woman who had a life more difficult than I could imagine. She shared her tent with a dozen children: half of them were hers, and half were the orphans of her sister. Her husband and brother-in-law were dead, so she was left to bring up this giant family on her own, without a house to live in, a stove to cook on, or a washing machine to clean the mud out of their clothes.
She could have been forgiven for being angry and bitter, but she wasn't anything of the kind. She made me a cup of tea on the naked gas flame that was all she had for cooking and heating, and told me a story. A couple of weeks before, a major humanitarian organization had come to the tent to ask them what they needed to make their lives easier. She could have picked many things — a fridge, a cooker, etc. — but she was not at home to tell them. Instead, they'd asked the children, and the children had gotten their wish.
So, while she scrubbed and cooked and sewed and cleaned, she could watch a brand-new television, the gift of the major western charity. It was an extraordinarily apt metaphor for the ignorance of the world with regard to the war in Chechnya, but she wasn't bitter about it. On the contrary, she laughed as she told me about it.
"If only we had electricity at the moment, you could watch it too," she said, with a flash of gold teeth.
I left her tent amazed by her spirit and resourcefulness.
As I walked back into the muddy field, by some meteorological fluke, the clouds opened. Seconds before there had been dirty gray clouds; now the horizon held a succession of impossibly grand, gleaming, jagged peaks. The Caucasus had revealed themselves to me. Before, I had felt an intellectual and emotional pull to the mountains; now, I just wanted to look at them. I was hooked, and over the next four years, while living in Moscow, I spent as much time here as I could.
I was present when the schoolchildren of Beslan were taken hostage, and counted their bodies in the morgue after they died. I picked my way through scraps of flesh in the snow after another suicide bomber exploded herself and the people who had happened to be by her side.
Eventually, though, the deaths congealed in my brain and misery displaced my love of the mountains. By 2006, I was tired and upset. I moved to London determined to forget about the Caucasus and about the poisoned wonderland they contained. But first, I would keep my promise to my cousin, to talk to a society he was a member of about the mountains on the far side of Europe.
I tried, on this last time I would ever address the subject, to convey to the audience the love and fascination I had felt when I first discovered the Caucasus a half-decade earlier. When I finished, a few people came up to chat with me, and among them was an old woman I never met again.
"That was fascinating," she said, without introducing herself. "When will you be writing your book?"
And that's what I did.